Policy Watch

Education’s always changing, and it can be hard to keep track. Policy Watch is the easy way to make sure you stay up to date with the latest developments.

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Policy Watch is our regular policy update service, covering national and international developments in the world of education. We try to keep things simple, sharing the latest news and information with you through weekly updates, monthly summaries, papers and events.

You can access the Policy Watch service through Steve's Twitter feed @SteveBesley or by signing up for email updates.

About Steve

As head of UK education policy at Pearson, Steve’s been running the Policy Watch service for almost 20 years. He’ll keep you informed on all things education, along with the rest of his subscribers – there were more than 10,000 at the last count!

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  • Pocket Watch – Ofsted raise questions about Apprenticeships

    ‘Guilty parties,’ ‘abuse of trust,’ ‘organise yourselves,’ just some of the strong language used by Ofsted’s Chief Inspector this week as he launched the inspectorate’s latest report on apprenticeships.

    The report follows concerns raised by the Chief Inspector in his Annual Report last year particularly about the poor take-up among young people and the lack of skill development in some programmes. Subsequently, Ofsted undertook further survey and visit work and this report is the result of that. The sub-text is: ‘how well do apprenticeships meet the needs of young people, their employers and the economy?’ The answer is not well enough…yet.    

    The current context

    As has been regularly touted, the government has positioned apprenticeships as a major policy priority for the duration of this Parliament. 2.38m apprenticeship were delivered over the last Parliament and a new target has been set of 3m over this one. The argument is that these are good for business, good for individuals and good for the country at large. The latest data published a couple of weeks ago shows that there were 492,700 apprenticeship starts in the academic year 2014-15 but that at 16-18 and for higher level apprenticeships, both key priorities for the government, there were only modest increases. That said, the government is undertaking a major reform programme designed to ensure that apprenticeships are high-quality, meet employer and learner needs and deliver what’s needed more generally. The reforms include the development of recognised industry standards through industry-led trailblazers, the introduction of an employer’s levy and provision for a statutory definition of apprenticeships to be applied. In fairness these reforms have yet to be implemented meaning the Ofsted report reflects a ‘before’ rather than an ‘after’ position. 

    What did Ofsted find?

    In the words of an accompanying press release Ofsted found that “the government’s ambition to boost apprenticeships in England and create a higher skilled workforce is being undermined.” And it is being undermined by a number of problems summarised as follows:

    • There’s too much variable and poor quality provision. “Inspectors found that in a third of the 45 providers visited, apprenticeships did not provide sufficient, high-quality training that stretched apprentices and improved their capabilities.” The report went on to cite examples of too much making of coffee and sandwiches and cleaning the floors rather than specific skill development, a claim disputed by AELP in Conference this week and one which was clearly not the case in many ‘traditional’ apprenticeship schemes but where the service industries appeared to be the main culprits.
    • Not enough young people, 16-18 year olds, are taking up apprenticeships. This has been an issue for some time and debate continues to rage about why this is the case. As the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) pointed out in its response, the decimation of careers guidance for young people has hardly helped but Ofsted feel that more could and should be done by schools and colleges both to inform and to prepare young people for apprenticeships. It’s a point the Edge Foundation and the British Chambers of Commerce in their recent reports have been making for some time and it well may be as the Association of Colleges argue that we need a return to some kind of pre-apprenticeship programme as a way in. Either way the issue of information and careers guidance continues to ring loud and clear.
    • Apprenticeship growth hasn’t been focused on the sectors where the skill shortages are at their most acute. Again not a new issue and one that the Engineering and Construction Boards respectively have been raising for some time but one that’s becoming increasingly important as the government’s Productivity Plan takes shape. “Nationally the number of apprentices starting since 2009/10 has almost doubled in business, admin and law and nearly tripled in health and care. Over the same period, in IT and engineering, the increase was at a lower rate and in construction, the number declined.”Websites like ‘Go Construct’ and ‘Tomorrow’s Engineers’ all help, let alone the ‘Get in.Go far’ marketing drive from the National Apprenticeship Service and other agencies but it’s clearly a hard slog and in need of some new momentum.
    • Employers, especially small and medium-sized business need to do more. This year’s CBI/Pearson Employers’ Survey reported that 66% of employers surveyed were involved in apprenticeships in some form with two-thirds of them looking to do more. Things like the apprenticeship Grant for Employers and the current publicity around apprenticeships have clearly helped but Ofsted is concerned that too many employers have been slow to get involved and many, particularly small businesses, find the whole engagement process daunting. “They told inspectors they fear that a burden of bureaucracy would fall on them.” The Chief Inspector urged businesses not to hold back: “organise yourselves. It’s no use waiting for others to put structures in place…use your networks and knowledge to find solutions.” How far such strictures work remains to be seen but for many, the uncertainty over the levy and where to start at a local level, remain big issues. 

    So what would a ‘good’ apprenticeship look like?

    The report goes on to list some of the key features of what it considered to be ‘successful’ apprenticeships, most of which were to be found in the more established areas of motor vehicle, engineering and construction.

    Broadly this comes down to good practice before, during and after. So at the before stage, best schemes invite the candidate in for a probationary period, establish rules and set clear goals. During the programme, apprentices are encouraged develop relevant skills including English and maths and are supported through regular reviews. And after, apprentices are helped with progression onwards and upwards and their contribution evaluated. It sounds motherhood and apple pie stuff but involves a lot of time, effort and resource and as Ofsted found, many schemes were not able to provide all this. 

    What’s Ofsted recommending?

    The report lists 15 recommendations, mainly aimed at government and providers and at this stage fairly broad brush in nature.

    Urging schools and colleges for instance to “provide impartial careers guidance about apprenticeships to all pupils and their parents,” is of course worth highlighting but as the ASCL comment earlier indicated, if there’s no formal mechanism in place for this to happen then it’s not going to get very far. Having said that if, as the report indicates, some schools were actually blocking providers and employers from going in and offering advice, then this raises a bigger issue about the impartiality of such advice and guidance.

    The issue seems to be as the Chief Inspector put it in his closing remarks when launching the report: “we have won the argument over the value of apprenticeships but we have yet to make them a sought-after and valid alternative career choice for hundreds of thousands of young people.” That’s the challenge that sits alongside the dash to deliver 3m more apprenticeship places. 

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  • Pocket Watch – Developing the higher level skills route

    Do we need to re-balance things a bit better between FE and HE if we are to secure that elusive high-level skills pathway that politicians and practitioners have dreamed of for so long? Many people think so.

    Alison Wolf saw it as a no-brainer in a report in June, describing the system currently as ‘bifurcated with spending concentrated on academic three year programmes for young people with spending per learner far lower in the skills sector than HE.’ And this week the think tank Policy Exchange has added its weight in a report calling among other things for a large chunk of university funding, half a billion to be precise, to be channelled over to the FE sector to help it develop ‘the high quality technical education’ that employers need.

    So how’s this been received, why has a high-level skills route proved so difficult to develop and what was Policy Exchange proposing? 

    What’s been the reaction?

    Pretty much as expected.

    The university sector remained unimpressed: “Robbing HE to prop up FE is not the way forward” argued former Education Minister now University Vice-Chancellor, Bill Rammell. University Alliance and Universities UK agreed: ‘this shouldn’t be an either-or.’ Kamjit Kaurin in a blog on wonkhe went further describing proposals to cut HE budgets any further as ’a recipe for disaster.’  On the specific issue of universities sitting on large surpluses which could be used to fund high-skills training in FE, Chris Hale, Director of Policy at Universities UK argued that the report failed to understand university finances: surpluses were necessary to ameliorate recent cuts, secure loans, engage in wider research and invest in infrastructure and other needs.

    FE people inevitably saw things differently. The AoC saw it as an opportunity to redress the funding balance and while we’re at it, giving colleges powers to create and award their own higher level technical and professional qualifications. The adult continuing learning organisation NIACE also saw it as a chance to lever funding into the skills training that the country needs while the Edge Foundation sided wholeheartedly with Policy Exchange: “we couldn’t agree more”and pointed to its own report in the summer which had painted a similar picture. 

    It’s unfortunate but perhaps inevitable six weeks away from an ominous sounding Spending Review that the debate is being played out in economic terms. A dance to the death between the two sectors over funding would probably help no-body. The bigger issue maybe is how to create a genuine all-through higher level route, providing a ladder between the two sectors in what Ministers have been wont to call a single membrane, but this has proved difficult.  

    Why has the higher-technical route proved so difficult to develop?

    It’s not been for want of trying with some efforts going back over a century. There’s been broad agreement on the fundamentals but not necessarily on the implementation or the mechanisms as these three recent examples from across the political spectrum shows.

    In the latter days of the last Labour administration, Lord Mandelson’s approach was to create what he called ‘a modern class of technicians.’ Details were set out in a National Skills Strategy published in 2009 and the mechanisms involved beefing up the number of advanced apprenticeships, developing a system of skills accounts and raising the quality of skills training in colleges and other providers.  A few years later, Vince Cable for the Coalition picked up the mantle promising in a landmark speech at Cambridge to strengthen what he called the sub-degree gap, encouraging the two systems of FE and HE to work together to develop advanced apprenticeships and higher-tech qualifications worthy of the name and effectively create an FE/HE bridging system. And even more recently, in June this year, George Osborne took things a stage further in the government’s Productivity Plan by proposing a network of specialised Institutes of Technology working with FE providers to deliver employer endorsed qualifications determined through local labour market planning and commissioning.

    The language may have changed over the years but as the HE Policy Institute discovered in a Paper commissioned by Pearson a few months ago and looking specifically at ‘Tackling the Level 4 and Level 5 conundrum,’ the basic concepts of employer engagement, locally determined skills needs, work-orientated qualifications and dedicated high-quality technical institutes have remained. All that’s been missing perhaps has been the funding which is where the Policy Exchange report comes in.  

    What’s Policy Exchange proposing?

    Broadly six things:

    • As part of the Spending Review, the government should seek to ensure that rather than relying on funding grants, the HE sector should draw on its own residual funds to provide for the additional costs of areas like widening participation and high-cost subjects. This would ease some of the pressure on the need to make further Dept cuts which at present appear to be targeted at FE while the potential savings accrued, estimated at £532m, could be used to fund the currently poorly funded higher skills and professional training in FE.
    • The Dept should accelerate the development of a network of specialised providers equipped to deliver the higher level technical and professional skills that employers need. This would mean building on the current model of National Colleges and Institutes of Technology and in effect creating sector specific provider hubs and outlets around the country. In addition, as many in the FE sector have argued, the Dept should allow these specialist colleges to develop and award their own higher level awards and in time franchise these out to other colleges who wish to use them. At the same time, relevant current qualifications developed by Awarding Organisations (AO) should be opened out and not restricted to any one AO.
    • The government should move towards a uniform loan system available for all post-19 training whether undertaken in FE or HE. In addition, this should encompass a lifetime draw down facility, in other words it should be a loan where any balance could be used up at a later date perhaps to top up or undertake further specialist training albeit within an overall cap.
    • The current maintenance grant, shortly to become a loan facility, should be extended to FE where currently the absence of any maintenance support mechanism is restricting opportunities for learners, for example to undertake specialist training in another part of the country.
    • Government should encourage employer engagement through the extended use of Industrial Partnerships.
    • The government should consider re-instating some form of cap on the numbers taking full hons degrees so as to encourage greater growth at the sub-degree level where many professional and technical qualifications are listed. In effect this would be a return to the numbers management system that operated a few years ago whereby universities were allowed to recruit any number of high-performing learners but where numbers limits applied to the rest. This would be a similar policy but with the cap lifted on numbers for the high-tech route. 
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  • Pocket Watch – Conference Lessons 2015

    It was always going to be a different Conference season this year with all three major Parties having to adjust to the realities of life after the May general election, but what have we learned about the future for education and skills?

    Here are six observations.   

    Education and skills remains an important issue

    It may not feel like one of the top policy issues at the moment but if the last few weeks are anything to go by, education remains an important priority for many. In the build-up to the general election earlier this year, education remained consistently in the top ten of voter priorities, coming in at number seven behind issues such as immigration, the NHS and the economy. According to the latest survey by Ipsos-Mori a couple of weeks ago, that has hardly changed. As if to emphasise the importance of education, it’s been the Prime Minister who has been fronting education announcements of late whether it be the announcement of more academies and apprenticeships last month or tougher rules on school truancy this week. The government clearly sees education as an important part of its pitch for the so-called ‘common ground,’ offering opportunity and aspiration to those hardworking families it so often mentions. As for Labour, it’s early days, there was a brief reference to school accountability in Jeremy Corbyn’s speech and the new Shadow Education Secretary has identified this along with teacher recruitment and funding as obvious targets as she starts to shape Opposition education policy. For public and politicians alike therefore, education remains up there as an important issue. 

    It’s (still) all about the economy

    The economy remains the overriding issue for much of this Parliament and certainly in the case of the government the locus for much education policy. At the moment, most minds are focused on the Spending Review and what that might bring for education but we’ve heard a lot over the last few weeks from both major Parties about their wider economic plans for the future. For the Conservatives, George Osborne seized the headlines with his raid on Opposition territory for a man and a plan in the shape of Lord Adonis and the National Infrastructure Commission. This along with a promised ‘massive transfer of power to local authorities’ and a commitment to legislate for a surplus for the future were the headline ingredients in his ‘building for the future’ speech and will be of interest for much of the FE and HE sectors let alone those who argue for a more skills-based 14-19 curriculum. For Labour, John McDonnell was keen to demonstrate that there were alternatives to austerity, “another world is possible.”  He duly announced a series of reviews including of the Treasury, Bank of England and HMRC, the creation of a new Economic Advisory Committee and a clampdown on tax evasion and avoidance. How far any of this would translate into a new skills agenda remains to be seen but he did interestingly stoke up a reformed BIS Dept as a key player in the future ”in charge of public investment, infrastructure planning and setting new standards in the labour market.” 

    But social reform matters

    Whether it’s Corbyn’s “kinder politics, more caring society” or Cameron’s ‘building a more compassionate society that leaves no-one behind,’ the Conference season has seen all major Parties attempt to add a heart to the economic head that has been determining government policy for so long. At present it’s hard to get beyond the buzz words: aspiration, opportunity, mobility and so on but there are signs that it’s beginning to drive some specific policies such as housing, social care, youth employment and of course education where the Prime Minister identified a lack of social mobility as “another big social problem we need to fix.” David Cameron’s belief that a more autonomous school system, sharper accountabilities and the introduction of a National Living Wage will help solve the problem puts him at odds with the Labour Party who have genuine concerns about all of those and especially about some of the specific welfare reforms. Social mobility is clearly one of the big social reform issues facing education at present as Ofsted, the Social Mobility Commission and others have been pointing out for some time. But there are others including: pupil welfare, safeguarding, children’s mental health, children in care and how well we prepare young people for adult life, many of which were raised in fringe events over the last few weeks and which will continue to shape the education agenda for the foreseeable future.  

    Schools of excellence

    In the build-up to the Conservative Party Conference this week, the TES highlighted four “major education crises” facing the government namely: teacher supply, pupil numbers, ‘rushed’ exam reforms and budget cuts. These, plus concerns about early years and 16-19 funding were also raised in various forums by Lucy Powell, the Shadow Education Minister who used her major speech to focus on a problem that’s proved thorny for the Party in the past: what to do about Free Schools and Academies. Her answer? “There will be no more Free Schools and Academy chains will be made accountable.” How the proposed new‘local oversight’ will work, whether it will be the Blunkett model of local standards commissioners or something else, remains to be seen but the marker has been firmly laid. As for the Conservatives, the Prime Minister again committed to more of the same in terms of Free Schools and Academies and the Education Secretary to wraparound childcare during both term and holiday time, and more opaquely to “educational excellence everywhere” but how far all this has helped resolve the crises listed.    

    FE still the forgotten middle child

    If there’s one sector entitled to feeling a bit miffed about a lack of political attention over the last few weeks, it’s FE. There was plenty of talk around the Conference fringes about apprenticeships, skills training and local growth planning but when it came to platform speeches from the BIS Secretary of State and his Shadow, not a smidgeon. For FE therefore it’s business as usual, battling to deliver the dual mandate of essential employability skills and higher-level tech skills while coping with shrinking budgets and a time-consuming series of area reviews. Significantly most government policy for the sector these days emanates from the Treasury, last week’s release of a National Infrastructure Plan for Skills being just the latest example. It may be some comfort therefore that so many of the Treasury plans including the all-important Growth and Productivity Plans depend on the FE sector to be able to deliver them. How many, should become clearer when the Treasury announces its spending and growth plans next month. 

    HE on hold

    For HE, Theresa May’s “students, yes; over-stayers, no,” speech was a sharp reminder that the student visa issue remains a hot topic and one that appears to be dividing Ministers as well. Overall, however, the sector remains a bit in limbo as it awaits the outcomes of two important Reports. One of course is the Spending Review where comments continue to pour in warning the government against savage cuts. Valedictory comments from the outgoing V.C. of Oxford and a blog from the Chancellor of Birmingham University this week being just the latest two examples. And the other of course is the Green Paper, given a pretty hefty trail by the HE Minister last month and due out shortly. Until the details on both of these are out and the implications clearer, HE remains in a state of uncertainty. Further uncertainty surrounds the Labour Party’s position on fees where it now appears that the campaign pledge by Jeremy Corbyn to scrap them will be subjected to the Party’s extensive consultation process. Quite what will emerge from what the Shadow Minister called “a deep process of thought” remains to be seen but it’s unlikely to be quick. 

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  • Pocket Watch – Two important bills

    This week the Education and Adoption Bill completed its passage through the House of Commons and headed off to finish its business in the Lords.

    At the same time, two further Bills that had been listed in the Queen’s Speech in May and which are of particular interest to the world of education made their grand entrance. One was the Enterprise Bill, a Bill that sets out to support small business and enterprise but with a section on apprenticeships. It’ll start in the Lords first where it is due a 2nd Reading on 12 October.

    The other is the Immigration Bill which has a number of wide ranging proposals including a couple of particular interest to the world of education. It’s starting off in the Commons and has its 2nd Reading on 13 October. 2nd Readings are used to debate general principles behind the proposed legislation and in the case of the Enterprise Bill where there’s already been consultation on apprenticeships may not be too controversial. The Immigration Bill may prove a different kettle of fish given the extent of the proposals outlined. This is how the education bits appear in each Bill.  

    The Enterprise Bill

    As indicated a lot of this Bill is taken up with simplifying and supporting small businesses, for example there’s provision for a Small Business Commissioner to fight for SMEs but Part 4 of the Bill deals with two apprenticeship matters. Clause 18 is aimed at the 3m target and grants the Secretary of State (SoS) powers to set apprenticeship targets for public bodies including incidentally government depts and other non-dept public bodies. How the targets are set, whether they’re to apply to single or groups of bodies and the prescribed timescale will be up to the SoS. There’ll be a duty on such bodies to provide progress reports to the SoS who will also be able to access information about the nature of a particular body’s workforce if required.

    Clause 19 picks up on the consultation earlier this summer on the formal status of an apprenticeship by making it an offence “for a person to provide or offer a course or training as an apprenticeship in England if it is not a statutory apprenticeship.” The offence can be committed by a body corporate or a representative of the body, will be enforced by local Weights and Measures Authorities and could result in action in a magistrate’s court and a fine. The aim is to protect the brand and prevent misuse. 

    The Immigration Bill

    This too has a couple of sections that are of particular interest to the world of education, both of which have been signalled previously. The first deals with English language requirements where as set out under Clauses 38-45, public sector workers will be required to speak “fluent English.” Public sector workers are defined as those that are public facing such as the police and NHS although relevant Ministers will be able to extend the requirement to different categories of workers and fluent English is defined as ‘a command of spoken English that enable workers to perform their role effectively.’

    Clause 46 meanwhile introduces an immigration skills charge which would see a levy imposed on certain groups of employers for each skilled worker they sponsor from outside the European Economic Area. Any money raised is intended to pay for the increase in apprenticeship numbers. 

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  • Pocket Watch – Stepping up careers guidance?

    Its been the subject of numerous reports and a cause of concern for some time, but careers guidance for schools and colleges may be about to pick up a bit with the launch of a new network of Enterprise Advisers intended to join up schools, colleges, young people and the world of work a bit better.

    The scheme has been put together by the Careers and Enterprise Company, which has been working with LEPs on the details for some time. The scheme, let alone the company, have not received a lot of attention so far so here’s a brief outline.  

    What is the Careers and Enterprise Company?

    It describes itself as “an employer-led organisation set up to help inspire and prepare young people for the fast-changing world of work.” It was actually formally announced in a statement by the Education Secretary last December in response to the clamour of concern about the lack of good careers guidance for young people. It was granted £20m seed corn funding to get started and became fully incorporated in February this year. It is independent of government and its official status is as one of the new breeds of community interest companies that were created in 2005 to support social enterprise 

    What’s the company’s remit?

    A key word is connectivity: connecting schools and colleges with the world of work and connecting young people with local employers, in essence using best practice and local ‘intelligence’ to support and help young people. Brokerage is key but using employers to help inspire and inform young people is seen as equally important 

    So what is this Enterprise Advisers network?

    It’s an employer engagement scheme which, as indicated, has been developed over recent months across the country in close partnership with Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). The aim is to use business volunteers, who will be supported by full-time co-ordinators, to work closely with groups of local schools and colleges helping perhaps with job tips, application advice, work experience opportunities, insights into the world of work and generally as the phrase goes, ‘joining up the dots.’ The scheme will roll out in three stages covering 28 areas (listing here) this month, with further waves by the end of this year and early next year.

    What else has the company got planned?

    It intends to launch an Investment Fund this autumn to support further activities and development and is also working on a student-owned digital enterprise passport as well as developing a ‘what works’ research base 

    How can I find out more?

    Brief details can be found on the Careers and Enterprise Company website.  

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